Formalities and rituals are an important part of Japanese culture, you have probably already heard of the importance of exchanging business cards. Gift giving is another great example of this and the focus is really on the ritual rather than the gift itself.
How should you give gifts in a Japanese business context? To keep things simple we will focus on business in this post, with a separate one for social or household gift giving situations. It is traditional to exchange gifts at the end of a first business meeting, then periodically after then. As with most aspects of culture, there are many nuances and quirks.
What to Give
Probably not something from Sakura Trading! If going to Japan for business you should bring a quality item from your home country, rather than something Made in Japan. A quality item such as a pen, business card holder or bottle of whiskey could work well. Prestigious brands are also generally appreciated. Much like in other cultures, monetary gifts and gifts with your company logo on should be avoided.
A detailed consideration is that different gifts should be given to people with different levels of seniority. Gifts in pairs are considered lucky - but again this is really for bonus points.
How to Give
Generally you should ensure your gifts are wrapped, if you are not good at this it may be best left to the store or your hotel. For bonus points you could get practised at wrapping with Furoshiki. When you head out you should keep the gift in your bag to be discrete before presenting it.
You should normally wait until the end of your meeting or visit to present the gift, ideally at a discrete moment. Consideration needs to be given to how this will work, gifts to individuals should be given in private and gifts to a group should be presented when all the recipients are assembled.
When you give the gift you should present it with both hands. The following phrases may also be helpful:
- When giving a gift you can geneally say: Taishita mono janai ndesuga (大したものじゃないんですが), which means "It's not much, but…". This is to stress that the relationship is more important than the gift.
- If giving to someone much more senior you may instead use: "Tsumaranai monodesuga" (つまらない物ですが), "It's a boring thing, but..."
Things to Avoid When GivingThere a few things to avoid, but as a foreigner you can expect to be forgiven if you get any minor details wrong.First caution is needed with flowers and plants. The flowers lilies, lotus blossoms, and camellias are associated with funerals. These and white flowers should be avoided. There is also a superstition that potted plants encourage sickness. Second giving gifts of four or nine is considered unlucky. This is because four can pronounced as shi (死) which is the word for death. Similarly nine, or ku (九), sounds like ku (苦), which means suffering, torture or agony.
How to Receive a Gift
Reciprocity is very important to building relationships, meaning you should expect to both give and receive gifts. Don't worry about being suspected of improper behaviour if you receive a gift - in Japan generous gifts would not be associated with bribery (although be careful if working in another country in a Japanese context).
To be polite you should modestly refuse the gift up to three times before accepting, then receive with both hands. Show the gift respect. You should open the gift in private, rather than in front of others. This has two reasons, it avoids comparisons with others and avoids shame if the gift was not suitable. Lastly, don't be caught unprepared - an often given tip is to always have a gift to hand so that if you are given one you are ready to reciprocate.
A Final Thought
Don't overthink it. People will understand if you don't get all the details right and still appreciate that you made the effort. We'd welcome your views on this post, is there anything we have missed? Or anything that practically isn't that important?